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Our Community Fieldworkers Explore Anthropology and Exhibit their Art

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Nicola, Skills for the Future trainee at the Horniman, reports on the art exhibition held to exhibit the work from the Community Fieldworkers project.

The Community Fieldworkers project took 34 South Londoners on an adventure in Anthropology. Over 7 weeks they were sent 18 postcards, each on with a different object from the Anthropology Collection on it. They were asked to ‘Make, Investigate or Tell a Story’ around one or all of the objects.

In February their fantastic and varied responses were showcased at the Community Fieldworkers Exhibition.

The public joined friends and family of the Community Fieldworkers in the Gardens’ Pavilion to see the exhibition, which included sculptures, collage, conceptual artworks and photography.

They were also treated to a live performance by Community Fieldworker Rupert whose spoken word reading of his poetry anthology 'An Anthropology of 18 objects – A Field Guide' wowed the crowd.

South East London Artists Network’s animation was also on display. It revealed how they had created their artworks based on the four postcards they had chosen – including postcard No.2.

The Marshall Islands navigation chart that appeared on postcard No.2 was the most popular object inspired a diverse range of responses.

One was Paulette’s ‘time clock’, which explored how her bike ride to school with her daughter was timed using the people they saw on the route.

Other interpretations included Neville’s impressive navigation chart of London that showed the journey to museums around the capital and Sarah’s beautiful representation of the object.

It was a fantastic day that brought the Community Fieldworkers together to talk about their ideas and show how they had explored the Horniman Museum and Gardens’ collection in a creative way.

You can see more photographs from the Community Fieldworkers exhibition on Flickr.

Bookblitz: Japanese Fairy Tales

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While reviewing our historic book collections, our librarian Helen came across many volumes that were owned by the founder of the Museum, Frederick Horniman. One of the most beautiful sets is a collection of Japanese Fairy Tales.

Although Frederick Horniman collected a huge range of objects from around the world, most were bought from other travellers. Frederick himself did not travel widely until much later in his life.

However, our records show that Frederick brought these four volumes, each containing a number of stories, back to the UK himself after he travelled to Japan in the early 1890s.

Every story is accompanied by beautifully detailed illustrations. They show the influence of traditional Japanese art, as well an an almost graphic novel style which is easy to imagine as a precursor to manga, devloped in Japan in the mid-1900s.

Many of the tales told echo the themes found in traditional European stories. Animals feature prominently as characters with their own voice and moral message to impart.

And, just as in traditional folk tales all over the world, they also include depictions violent acts we might not associate with 'fairy tales' today.

It may seem unusual that these books are printed in English, as is printed proudly on the spines. Volumes such as these were widely produced in Japan in the late 1800s for a tourist market.

Japan became a popular destination for European tourists after the country's isolationist policy came to an end in the 1850s, opening up Japan to the West.

These four small volumes are a particularly exciting discovery for us not only because they are beautiful and represent a moment in world history, but because they are objects chosen by Frederick Horniman himself to add to his library.

Five Go Collecting: Kingly Swords

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Modern-day collector Farhana updates us on her fieldwork in Bangladesh, where she has been aiming to collect objects as part of the Horniman Collecting Initiative.

I am in the early stages of my fieldwork in Bandarban, contextualizing and deepening my knowledge of the Marma community. I am trying to understand how Marma people remember and celebrate their unique history, and have begun by studying those who are the leaders of the Marma community – the Bohmong families.

When visiting the current leader, Bohmong-Gree U Chaw Prue, I noticed photos of previous Bohmongs on his wall. They all appear to be carrying the same sword with gold ornate hilt as part of their ceremonial dress.

Apparently, every Bohmong has inherited a kingly sword. All previous swords appear to be lost but the one in these photos still lives on. It is thought to have been a gift from a British governor to this region, possibly Thomas Herbert Lewin in the period 1864 to 1875.

In order to understand the origins of this kingly blade and the symbolic power that it holds, we need to delve into the history of this dynasty.

The Bohmong families are descendents of the legendary Emperor Tabin Shweti (1531-1551) of the historical Pegu Empire in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).

In 1599, Emperor Tabin Shweti’s successor, Emperor Nanda Baran was defeated and killed in a battle against a formidable coalition made up of the kings of Taungoo, Siam and Arakan. The King of Arakan took the son and daughter of the dead king as captives.

Accompanying these surviving members of the royal family were 33,000 ‘faithful followers’, thought to be members of the royal court of Pegu. They carried the spoils of war and symbols of royal power - weapons, gold and four white elephants - to the court of Arakan. (I wonder at this point whether the bodyguard’s swords in the photo may date back to this period.)

In 1614, the captured Pegu prince, Maung Saw Pyne, was sent to Chittagong, then part of Arakan province. He defended the region against Portuguese pirates and was honoured with the title of ‘Bohmong’, the King of the Generals. He was given a sword which is lost.

In 1710, the then King of Arakan and the 4th Bohmong Hari Nyo were able to re-conquer the region after it had been invaded by Mughal forces. In return for his valour, Hari Nyo was given the title of Bohmong-Gree – the Great King of The Generals.

In 1900, now part of the British Empire, the Chittagong region was divided into three circles, with each headed by a Circle Chief. The descendents of the Pegu prince became Bohmong rulers of the Bandarban circle. The present Bohmong Chief is the 17th of his dynasty.

Therefore the history of the Bohmong family has its roots in central Myanmar (Burma), but the captive prince of Pegu became a ruler again in his new incarnation as the Bohmong of Bandarban, and the ‘faithful followers’ have become part of the present-day Marma community.

It appears that the original sword that was lost has been reintroduced in the twentieth century: it represents military prowess in the face of Portuguese and Mughal invaders, and shows that Bohmong authority was sanctioned both by the Kings of Arakan and the British Empire.

Although it does not seem possible that the Bohmongs of the twentieth century would have been directly involved in battle, it is likely that the early renditions of this sword were more than symbols of military prowess; they were battle-ready swords.

The sword has gained significance through its placement in this dynasty’s story, even though it is a relatively new addition to the ceremonial wardrobe. It expresses a commitment to maintaining a link with an ancestral heritage, connecting the present with different moments in the history of these people. Moreover, it reinstates the vanquished prince of Pegu to his former kingly power.

Museum Documentation

Documentation Manager Rupert introduces us to #MuseumDocumentation and the important role it plays at the Horniman.

Documentation is one of the less visible aspects of what we do at the Horniman.

In museums, 'documentation' has quite a specific meaning: looking after the information about our objects (some of which finds its way online), and making sure that we can account properly for them – being able to say what we own and where it is, and making sure that nothing happens to the collections without being properly considered and authorised.

Without that information, our objects are effectively meaningless: we need to know what they are, where they came from and when, how they're used, who made them, and so on, before we can understand them.

So documentation is fundamental to everything we do, but few people realise how vital it is and how much of it goes on behind the scenes (for example, large parts of our projects Collections People Stories and Bioblitz are about finding out and recording more about the objects).

This was brought home to me before Christmas, on a visit to the National Maritime Museum, where I saw a collecting box asking people to choose to contribute either to education or to conservation work – but not to documentation, which so often seems to be invisible.

So to try and raise its profile, I've encouraged my fellow documentalists (yes, that is what we seem to call ourselves) to tweet about they're doing, and why it's important, using the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation:

Tweets about "#MuseumDocumentation"

I also started a thread in the Collections Management group on LinkedIn, asking for people's suggestions for bite-sized definitions of why documentation is important. The discussion showed that opinion was divided between those of us who, like me, think we should try and raise the profile of documentation, and those who think we should just focus on the end results.

I’d be interested to hear what you think:

  • Would you be interested in hearing more about the documentation work we do, and why we do it?
  • Would you like to find out about our documentation work during activities like visits to our stores or exhibitions?
  • And of course, would you put money in the slot marked ‘documentation’ in a museum collecting box?

Let us know your answers in the comments or on Twitter with the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation.

Taxidermy on Film

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Dan Brown (MASH Cinema) is providing the film programme for our Taxidermy Late. Here he tells us a bit more about it.

My view of taxidermy is shaped by Jan Švankmajer’s film, ‘Alice’; a little macabre but truly captivating. Even now, wandering around natural history galleries in museums, I love looking at the specimens and the characters created by the taxidermists.

When programming the films for the Horniman’s Taxidermy Late, I wanted to include a mixture of genres, allowing me to explore different areas of this fascinating subject. Hopefully showing a truer representation of it: one of integrity, artistry and scientific discovery.

Below is a short introduction to some of the selected films.

'The Taxidermist' by Bertie Films

Produced by Warp Films, this eccentric short film explores what would happen if pets lived forever, thus leaving a taxidermist without work.

'Le Taxidermiste' by Le Taxidermiste Team

This beautifully made French animation deals with the fate of a taxidermy collection after the death of its creator. It’s time to say goodbye to what is left behind.

‘Taxidermists’ by Nicole Triche

This documentary follows two taxidermists at the biennial World Taxidermy Competition, providing a glimpse into the often overlooked world of art, science and competition.

Modern Taxidermy: Mounting the Indian Elephant from American Museum of Natural History

Rich Remsberg’s edit of this archival film (1927) documents Carl Akeley's taxidermy process from the raw hide to the finished display.

These films will be shown in collaboration with Electric Pedals who will use the energy created by the audience to power the cinema.

Today is the last day you can buy tickets for Taxidermy Late in advance: book yours now to be in with the chance of skipping the queues and having enough time to watch MASH Cinema's fabulous film selection.

Richard Quick from the Horniman to Russell-Cotes

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Collections Access Officer Sarah has been renewing the Horniman's connection to Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum through our Object in Focus loans scheme.

In light of a recent loan to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, I can’t help but look through our archive for pictures of our friend Richard Quick.

I work on an Arts Council England funded project called Object in Focus whereby we proactively encourage museums to borrow objects from our stores. One of these objects is a beautiful ceramic shogi (chess) set from Japan.

This object has been part of the Object in Focus project since 2012 and has so far toured to Maidstone Museum, Hastings Museum, Powell-Cotton Museum and Chiddingstone Castle, and lastly to Bournemouth at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

The Horniman Museum is comparable to the Russell-Cotes Museum not only due to our similar collections, but also because of Richard Quick. Quick was resident curator of the Horniman Museum and Gardens from 1891 to 1901. His move to the Horniman coincided with the museum being open to the public, and he oversaw a change in museum practice: the retention of letters and receipts relating to purchases, production of annual reports, and rearrangement and relabelling of numerous displays.

During Quick’s tenure, he also acted as an agent for John Frederick Horniman and between 1897-1899, listed his entire collection in two bound registers including a ‘Geo-Global Survey’ of the ethnographic collection that listed a total of 7,920 objects.  

After leaving the Horniman Museum he worked at Bristol Art Gallery and Museum until 1921, then moved to the Russell-Cotes where he worked until he retired in 1932. It is understood that Quick was handpicked by Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes due to his extensive Japanese knowledge.

Quick was married but his wife died not long after he started working at Russell-Cotes. His daughter, who was a nurse, also lived in the museum. When a visitor died of a heart attack in Gallery One, she tried to save him before the doctor arrived.

Quick gave many lectures both at the Horniman and Russell-Cotes Museums. He was a curator for 43 years and an original member of the Japan Society in London.  

Ethical taxidermy: where do the animals come from?

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Ahead of next week's Late event, taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long blogs for us on the history of her craft and where she sources her specimens.

Taxidermy has evolved a lot since it first became popular in the early nineteenth century. Most of the specimens collected during this time (including the specimens at the Horniman) would have been collected from overseas. The animals would have be killed, their skins salted, and then shipped back to the UK to be mounted by a taxidermist. The skins may have been sent with no measurements at all and the taxidermist had probably never seen the animal in real life so this is partly the reason why most Victorian taxidermy looks a little odd.

Taxidermy in the modern world however is very different. Although trophy taxidermy does still exist, most taxidermists work using animals that have not been killed purely for the purpose of taxidermy. There are also laws protecting certain species which means a taxidermist must obtain legal paperwork to prove they have died naturally.

I call myself an ethical taxidermist as I only use animals that have died from a natural cause or accident. All of my specimens have been donated to me by family, friends, rescue centres or strangers that find me via my website or Twitter.

The animals I work with may have been hit by a car, flown into a window or died from old age or illness. This means I never know what animals I’m going to receive and the condition they’re going to be in. Using animals sourced in this way can often be problematic as more work has to be done, such as: fixing broken skulls and replacing lost fur and feathers. Occasionally it means I will start work on an animal but find it is no good to use and have to throw it away which I find very sad and frustrating.

Methods in taxidermy have also dramatically improved throughout the years. Many modern materials and techniques mean the results can be amazingly realistic. If you would like to learn more about taxidermy the UK’s Guild of Taxidermists hold an annual conference every March. It’s the best place to meet other taxidermists and learn techniques through talks and demonstrations.

I will be showing my method of bird taxidermy at the Horniman Museum and Gardens Taxidermy Late in the evening on Thursday 27 February, so come along and feel free to ask me as many questions as you like.

Bookblitz: Crocodile Hunting in Central America

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When our librarian Helen came across this title in her Bookblitz project, it was obvious it was one of the more intriguing titles in our historic collection.

While the title might be enough to entice a reader, what makes this book even more special is the fact it tells the story of some natural history specimens from a museum across the pond.

'Crocodile Hunting in Central America' was written in 1952 by Karl P. Schmidt, then Chief Curator of Zoology at the Chicago Natural History Museum (now the Field Museum). The book reports on a trip taken to Belize in 1923 with the aim of acquiring specimens for a new exhibition.

The crocodiles for the new display would not be taxidermy, but instead reproduced from a plaster cast of the animal. Unfortunately, it's rather difficult to produce a cast of a living crocodile.

It's surprising for anyone today to hear that collecting specimens for a museum display would involve hunting wild animals, but in the 1920s this was common practice. Without modern photography and film it was the best way to show those who were unable to travel the wonder and diversity of the natural world.

Of course, this is no longer supported by museums, which now aim to source their specimens using more ethical means, and for specific scientific purposes. Still, this volume is an important part of the historical record for all museums, including the Horniman, representing a period where we did things very differently.

The book also provides a detailed record of the ingenious methods used to create the replica crocodiles.

As it was published some time after the 1923 expedition, there's even a photograph of the finished product on display in the Chicago Natural History Museum.

The Field Museum regularly share their archive photographs on Tumblr, showing how other specimens from their collection were prepared for display. We'd love to know if the archive includes some of the image from 'Crocodile Hunting in Belize'.

Also look out for a blog post later this week revealing more about how modern taxidermists acquire their specimens.

Tree Felling in the Gardens

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As part of the gardens tree maintenance programme, our trees are surveyed every two years by a professional arboriculture consultant. He advises on how we should prioritise our tree works.

In the most recent survey, completed in January, a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) located on the Avenue was flagged up as being a priority.

The tree is probably between 50-100 years old and, although it looks fine from the outside, there is decay within the base of the tree which makes it potentially dangerous.

On Tuesday last week, the tree was felled by a registered tree surgeon who has worked in our Gardens before.

Some of the wood will be used for a new wildlife garden, smaller branches will be chipped up and taken offsite, as will the main trunk.

Our next steps are to replace the tree and redevelop the bed around it.

Extreme Animals Arrive

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This week has been an exciting one at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as we prepare for the opening of our new family friendly exhibition, Extremes.

There have been quite a few taxidermy animals to settle into their new home. It was exciting to see them all arriving.

Extremes offers a chance for us to loan some larger taxidermy specimens which are rare in the Horniman collections. Can you guess who these claws belong to?

There is also an opportunity for some of our own collections to come out of storage and get some well-deserved attention on display. The Exhibitions team have been busy preparing and mounting a wide variety of objects.

It's been fantastic fun testing out some of the interactives, too.

For the last few weeks, our #ExtremeCurator has been experiencing the enviroments explored in the exhibition, and looking at how well-adapted some animals are compared to humans. You can catch up on Paolo's adventures on Youtube.

Today, Paolo took a tour around the exhibition itself. Keep an eye out for the last #ExtremeCurator video, where he'll introduce you to some of the animals featured in Extremes.

Extremes is open to the public from 12.30pm on Saturday 15 February. You can buy your tickets online in advance.

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